A bumper breakfast, with ulcers
Tomorrow morning, Chris Evans and chums start broadcasting simultaneously on Virgin radio and Sky TV. Hester Lacey eavesdropped on the hard-headed team at Ginger HQ
Sunday 04 October 1998
Anyone who has ever been in a radio studio will know that visually they are very boring places: small rooms where people sit around with headphones on, talking into microphones. Hopes for this new format, however, are pinned to the unique Evans radio formula. His current Virgin breakfast show has already left the old-fashioned records-plus-banter tradition way behind. Evans takes to the airwaves with a whole gang of jolly pranksters at his elbow.
His sidekicks comprise two of his producers, Dan McGrath and John Revell (aka Johnny Boy, a DJ in his own right and an executive with Evans's Ginger Media Group), plus former Ultrabra model Holly "Hotlips" Samos and Jamie "Jamie the Student" Broadbent. The frenzied, giggling interaction between this team, discussing Holly's boyfriend or Dan's weight, is the main attraction for the radio listeners, and installing cameras will let fans "fully witness live ... the gang in all their morning glory", according to Sky.
The first pilot featured such morning-glorious highlights as Chris stretching and drinking tea, Holly yawning and blowing her nose, and Jamie the Student consuming a prodigious number of Marlboro Lights. The equipment is state- of-the-art. The four cameras in the little studio are minute by broadcasting standards. The usual huge, wheeled behemoths would never fit; these are comparative babies that can be wall-mounted and have only been on the market for a few weeks. The nerve-centre is next door in a room the size of a cupboard. This cubby-hole with its banks of monitors is staffed by a gaggle of technicians who bear a striking resemblance to a baby-faced University Ents Committee working-party.
It has been three weeks of hard work getting everything ready; last Wednesday there was a spaghetti of wires everywhere and rough plaster on the walls. "I've been living on pizza for a week," said Alex Lakey, head of engineering (aka Alex the Psycho Engineer). "I'm the pizza company's number one fat bastard!" he added cheerily.
But behind this pseudo-studenty facade, everything is deadly serious. When Chris Evans himself nipped in to have a look at the first tapes, there seemed to be a certain feeling of relief when he laughed aloud. The knockabout feel of the show itself is belied by sharp professionalism behind the scenes: as soon as the broadcasting lights went off, Evans was berating the hapless Jamie the Student. Jamie's crime: he had overrun a five-second slot in which Evans had been planning to say something like "And have lots of fun partying on your birthday!", an apparently crucial interjection. A shamefaced apology followed.
Scenes like this are unlikely to make it on air. But the warts-and-all approach is entirely deliberate, according to James Baker, head of programming at Sky. "Breakfast television has got to a point where there ain't nothing new. It has got very cosy - even The Big Breakfast has been around a long time now. We are deconstructing the genre: there will be no make-up, no scripts, no autocue, no beautiful people in suits telling you how to get fit," he says. "If any of the team come in feeling appalling, they will look appalling - it will reflect the nation's feeling of being a bit headachy and blurry first thing in the morning."
Somehow, it's not hard to imagine that this will prove oddly compelling to the fans who already feel they know the team from their radio voices. These are the ones that appreciate the motor-mouth approach, know the characters by name and have already established the same kind of one- way intimacy that leads viewers to think soap-opera characters are real. In fact, suggests John Pearson, chief executive at Virgin Radio, "it is like a form of soap opera but with genuine characters". This big-happy- family feel has also not escaped the astute Mr Baker. "A lot of people are very crotchety and insecure in the morning, and a radio studio like that is a warm, nice place to be - a lot of people hanging out together." He hopes that the show will be the only one to have true family appeal that will pull in younger parents and children alike.
There are plenty of fans already out there; Virgin ratings continue to rise while those of its main rival, BBC Radio One, continue to fall. It is nearly a year to the day since Chris Evans joined the station and during that time listener figures have risen from 3.3m to 4.2m. (Though there may be a little initial confusion amongst the loyal: last Thursday morning, Chris read out a letter from a viewer complaining about the simultaneous timing of the television and radio shows and asking crossly which she was supposed to support.)
The main principle behind the television show is to make absolutely no concessions to television. As well as the non-glam no-make-up approach, all the cameras and lighting have been installed so that they won't interfere in any way with a normal morning. Everything is mounted on lightweight aluminium gantries; once final positions have been fine-tuned, these will be removed and the equipment permanently mounted. There is one hand- held camera for "chasing exciting guests through the building", or heading out on the street for a vox pop (John Pearson is keen to catch the traffic warden who keeps ticketing Chris's car).
One of the few concessions to television will be the use of videos to fill the slots when records are playing. And, in accordance with ITC regulations forbidding product placement, there are no Virgin radio jingles or visible logos. In "the Zoo", the coffee-bar waiting-area where one of the cameras is placed, even the glass fronts of the fridges have been covered with posters to hide the Virgin Cola inside.
John Pearson doubts the whole thing could have been accomplished without the combined multi-media expertise of Virgin and Ginger. "I don't think we could have done it otherwise, if we'd had to bring in a television company with a different culture, people we didn't know and those big cameras that have to be wheeled around. As it is, we should get an award for best use of every foot of Soho space - we have built a complete television studio inside a radio studio without ever going off the air."
This new foray is the latest stage in the unstoppable rise and rise of Chris Evans. He already owns the highly successful Virgin Radio, bought from Richard Branson for over pounds 80m in a blaze of publicity in December last year; turnover and profits are both significantly increased. Ginger Media is also riding high and is valued at pounds 30m in its own right. Sky will pay Virgin pounds 4.5m for the Breakfast Show over the next two years, which may seem a lot for a programme which, after the initial technical set-up costs, must be cheap to produce. But, says Sky's James Baker, they are very satisfied with the deal. "We both got good value," he says. "It's an incredibly valuable property. Chris is worth a lot of money and we had to take that into account."
He believes that this is just the start of a sea-change for Sky. Media analysts have pointed out that satellite channels gain most of their viewers for sports and films - not because of their mass-entertainment programming. Broadcasts like the Breakfast Show could begin to change that; for, while first showings of American niche-market imports like Friends are already sewn up by satellite, the really big audiences are pulled in by domestically produced originals. "We've got a goal at Sky One to take it from being just another cable and satellite channel to something that can be perceived as being as good an entertainment service as terrestrial television," says James Baker. "What we need to build more strength is more UK personalities and there is no doubt that Chris is pretty much as good as you can get."
John Pearson at Virgin believes it will also benefit the radio show. "We don't fear losing out to a television audience. It will take Chris and our breakfast production to a wider audience; it communicates in a different way."
The launch party is tomorrow. From 7.15 in the morning, the champagne will be flowing at Circus, one of London's newest and trendiest restaurants. There will also be Marmite fingers, as Marmite is sponsoring the project. After the champagne, both parties have the long haul of a two-year stint ahead of them; and Howard Stern's US television show, which follows a similar format, is struggling. "Finding a new format is heaven, it very rarely happens. We are very, very excited," says Sky's James Baker. "But it's entirely unpredictable, which is a very good way of developing stomach ulcers."
The Chris Evans Breakfast Show: Sky One, from tomorrow.
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